NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Round 2 of an epic point guard battle goes to Russell Westbrook: Chris Paul fired the first shot in Game 1. Russell Westbrook‘s response … whew! After spending the opener as a guest on his own floor, Westbrook made it clear whose house it was with a wicked Game 2 effort, finishing with a triple-double* that helped lift the Thunder. Before things head for Hollywood for Games 3 and 4, Westbrook took his star turn. Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman has the details:
Russell Westbrook made it clear early that Game 2 was going to be different.
On the first possession of the night, he snagged a steal, then in the process of gathering the ball and heading up court, he ran counterpart Chris Paul into an official. It was whistled a foul on Paul. Then, Westbrook got an offensive rebound and drew a foul on Blake Griffin. Then, he dished an assist to Kevin Durant.
The game was less than a minute old, but the Thunder point guard was already filling the stat sheet.
Setting the tone, too.
“I think Russell probably played harder than all of us combined,” Paul said. “He was all over the place.”
On a night when the Thunder needed to win on home hardwood and even up this Western Conference semifinal – and did just that with a 112-101 victory — Westbrook made sure that this series turned around. He scored. He rebounded. He assisted. He defended. He hounded.
In the process, Westbrook notched his third triple-double of these playoffs.
No other player has even one triple-double in this postseason.
Roll that around in your head a minute. Westbrook 3, rest of the NBA 0.
His triple-double numbers: 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. He became the fifth player in the last 25 seasons with three or more triple-doubles in one postseason. The others: Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo.
Westbrook added three steals and plenty of defensive headaches for the Clippers. What’s more, Westbrook contained Paul, who managed only 17 points and 11 assists. Maybe that seems like a lot, but compared to what he did in Game 1, the damage was minimal.
Two nights after Paul dominated this matchup with eight three-pointers, 32 points and a career night, Westbrook showed that he wasn’t going to back down. Yes, Paul is great. Sure, he might be the best point guard on the planet.
Then again, maybe not.
The point guard battle royale is back on.
And it is because Westbrook went right at Paul. He drew that foul on the opening possession. Then, he just kept coming. He crashed the boards. He looked for contact. He drove to the basket. For as good as Paul is, he’s more jitterbug than bruiser, and with Westbrooks height and size advantage, he used that to his advantage.
Less than halfway through the first quarter, Paul picked up foul No. 2 and had to go to the bench.
“It’s tough to guard him as it is,” Paul said, “but you get two bad fouls early in the game … it makes it that much tougher.”
No. 2: Trail Blazers have to prove they can hang with mighty Spurs: The sting of that Game 1 loss can serve to motivate or bury the Portland Trail Blazers even deeper in their conference semifinal against the San Antonio Spurs. No one will know for sure how they respond until they hit the floor tonight in San Antonio for Game 2. But it’s clear that there is only one option for the crew from the Pacific Northwest, and that’s proving they belong on the same floor with the mighty Spurs, as Dwight Jaynes of CSNNW.com explains:
They must overcome their wire-to-wire drubbing at the hands of the Spurs in Game 2, play harder and smarter, and establish some sort of base with which to play the rest of the series.
And it won’t be easy.
First, the on-court challenges. San Antonio plays a physical, unselfish team game. You must defend all five of their players at all times — including guys named Aron Baynes. On offense, you must fight your way through constant, sometimes brutal screens that made the Portland point guards, especially, look like those little round balls in a pinball machine — getting banged, bumped and flipped all over the court. When this team sets a screen on you, it’s a real screen that can rattle your teeth, not some little nudge you’d get in an elevator.
On offense, Portland has to return to its ball and player movement — make the Spurs defend while the ball is being reversed from one side of the floor to the other. No easy task, there, either.
All of that is a huge adjustment from round one, where Portland played a Houston team featuring an isolation-oriented offense for two players and, at times, slipshod defense.
But the mental task will be huge. San Antonio showed the Blazers its A game and for a Portland team so full of swagger after the first-round win over Houston, that loss was a tough pill to swallow. Damian Lillard refused to call the defeat an embarrassment but certainly what we saw from Portland was a long way from its best effort.
This is when doubt can creep in — particularly if good things don’t happen right off the bat Thursday night. This is a mighty big stage and when you don’t perform at your best it can do funny things to your confidence, individually and as a team.
Do the Trail Blazers belong in the second round of the playoffs? Sure, they beat a good team to get here. But they’re playing an even better now. And how the Trail Blazers react to the situation Thursday is critical.
Portland doesn’t even need to win Game 2. There’s no “must” attached to a road game this early in the series. But, for their own self-confidence, they better play better.
No. 3: Roy Hibbert feeds off of the energy from familiar faces: — It turns out Roy Hibbert wasn’t in dire need of psychoanalysis after all. All he needed was some time fishing with teammates Paul George and George Hill and a visit from some familiar faces to get back to “normal” in the Pacers’ conference semifinal matchup against the Washington Wizards. NBA.com‘s very own Steve Aschburner explains how Roy got his groove back:
Hibbert’s college coach at Georgetown, John Thompson III, was in the building to lend support and so was his agent, David Falk, who locked Hibbert up in a pep talk near one baseline moments before tipoff.
And then, on the game’s first possession, the redemption began.
“The ball got tipped around, Lance [Stephenson] threw it to him, he just threw a prayer up and it goes in,” Washington’s Drew Gooden said. “I looked at Andre [Miller] and said, ‘That’s gonna get him going right there.’ “
Hibbert hit two more shots and scored seven points in the first quarter. By halftime, he had 17.
“You’d see a loose ball get to him with one second on the shot clock,” Washington point guard John Wallgroused, “and he’d make a jump shot.”
It was that sort of evening, overdue and impossible to overdo.
“I felt that I put a lot of pressure on myself to get going,” Hibbert said. “I think I was making a lot of excuses the second half of the season and then into the playoffs. So I decided to take it into my own hands and change things around.”
An All-Star through the season’s first half, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert sputtered and swooned after that as if someone had slipped Kryptonite into his compression shorts. In seven first-round games against Atlanta and the opener of this series Monday, he no-showed in four. Three times, he went scoreless, getting up a total of five shots. Five times he managed three or fewer rebounds. We could go on, but the ugliest numbers got plenty of play, his points and rebounds vying with Flounder‘s GPA: Zero-point-zero.
The sniping locally and nationally at Hibbert’s game, his manhood, his psyche reached epic, withering proportions. Social media was crammed with barbs, Photoshop wit and memes of meanness.
“People have been piling on Roy,” West said. “He’s very aware. So that’s been a part of this thing. We’ve told him to try to unplug himself from that. And he’s tried, he’s worked on it. But you can’t help but hear the criticism.
“Our message to him has been encouragement. When he plays well, we’re a better team. There’s no other way to put it.”
No. 4: Crucial Heat role players know that there will always be shuffling: You can never get comfortable with your role when Erik Spoelstra is your coach. You just can’t. The Miami Heat’s chief strategist has been known to be flexible with his rotations, using whoever he needs at the time to get the job done. That keeps the Heat’s reserves on a constant competitive edge and has made them a critical component in the championship structure in South Florida. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald provides some context:
Lineup twister, Shane Battier calls it.
His teammates have different names for it — this cold-hearted business Heat coach Erik Spoelstra deals in this time of year — and most of those names are unfit to print. In the lineup on a Monday, and relegated to the end of the bench by next Tuesday. The toast of the ball today and nowhere near the bouncing ball the next. If the name on the back of the jersey is something other than James, Wade or Bosh, then playing time during the playoffs is subject to change and probably will.
“We make jokes about it, but I can’t really share those jokes in public,” Battier said on Wednesday, an off day for the Heat after its 107-86 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Spoelstra calls his team “different,” and says that not every collection of players could be so selfless in pursuit of championships. Then again, the Heat’s coach also recognizes that it’s not easy. Spoelstra joked after Tuesday’s game that Battier probably wouldn’t be opposed to pulling his coach into a dark alley for benching him back in March.
“You can’t have a roster of guys under 25 in this spot,” Battier said. “They would see it as indictments of their careers and self importance.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, a team co-captain, is the latest millionaire athlete to go from playoff starter to playoff cheerleader from one game to the next in the name of team. Haslem started every game of the Heat’s first-round series against the Charlotte Bobcats. The Heat swept the series and Haslem had one of the most important roles. It was his job to defend the Bobcats’ best player, center Al Jefferson.
Haslem performed that task brilliantly, and as a reward he was unceremoniously replaced in the starting lineup by Battier. Haslem played on Tuesday in the Heat’s 21-point blowout, sure, but only so Chris Bosh could be subbed out for the final two minutes of the game. Of course, Haslem can’t openly complain about his benching. After all, the roles were reversed back in April. In the run up to the playoffs, it was Battier clapping courtside and Haslem enjoying starter minutes.
“We can play any kind of way we need to play,” Haslem said Monday, the day before this latest playoff series and the day he learned he was heading back to the bench. “That’s why we got guys who stay ready for when your number is called. You step out there and you take care of business, so we’ll adjust accordingly and whoever’s number is called to go in there and get the job done, they’ll be ready.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Sterling affair in Los Angeles is certainly nowhere near over, not with Shelly Sterling, the wife of Donald Sterling, making waves … The Wizards, normally cool under pressure, showed some signs of cracking in Game 2 against the Pacers … Tim Duncan and Joey Crawford back together again for Game 2 of Spurs-Trail Blazers … The absence of Brook Lopez casts large shadow over Heat series for Nets … Scoot over Steve Kerr, Stan Van Gundy in the mix for the Warriors
ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Kevin Durant’s your 2013-14 Kia NBA MVP, but last night Russell Westbrook reminded us all that he is the true #forceofnature in Oklahoma City …